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Milan Lucic - The Hope and the Plan

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THE ACQUISITION

On March 9, 2006 then Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe traded Marty Reasoner, Yan Stastny and a 2nd round draft pick to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Sergei Samsonov. This was one of three trades Lowe made leading up to the 2006 trade deadline that helped the Oilers secure a playoff spot and make a run to the 7th game of Stanley Cup Finals. The other two trades were the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson and Jaroslav Spachek.

Sergei Samsonov was a key part of (a) the team making the playoffs (he produced 16 points in 19 regular season games) and (b) the team’s “Cinderella” playoff run (he produced 15 points in 24 playoff games).

Does any Oiler fan not remember Samsonov’s wonderful pass to Ales Hemsky for the goal that eliminated the President Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 of the 1st round?

Samsonov would not play another game for the Oilers after those 24 playoff games, he was a pure rental, however, I would posit that no Oiler fan regrets that trade.

On June 25, 2006, at General Motors Place in Vancouver, with the 50th overall pick, the Boston Bruins used the 2nd round pick acquired from the Oilers in the Samsonov trade to select Milan Lucic.

The Edmonton Oilers would then proceed to spend the better part of a decade looking for the “next Milan Lucic”. This led to the acquisition, via trade or draft, of players such as a Cameron Abney, Mitch Moroz, Travis Ewanyk and Kale Kessey.

Finally, on July 1, 2016, the Oilers found their “Milan Lucic” when they signed THE Milan Lucic to a 7 year/$42M contract complete with a No Movement Clause and full trade protection (until the last two years where the No Trade Clause becomes limited).

Although the reaction to the contract in Oil Country was mixed, the general consensus was that the signing was a positive for the organization and Lucic would be full value for his $6M cap hit for at least the first 4-5 years of the contract. The concern was generally with the length of the contract and the fact that, given Lucic was 28 years old when the contract was signed and the physical nature of his style of play, his play would drop off over the last few years of the contract.

Not many, if any, Oiler fans predicted that a fall-off in play and production from Milan Lucic would be as quick and as hard as it has been. Aside from some small stretches of play, Lucic has failed to live up to expectations and his $6M cap hit from the very start of the contract. In Milan’s defense, the small stretches of “Lucic hockey” include some time during the 2017 playoffs.

THE FALL OFF

There is a general position among many Oiler fans that Lucic simply has had half a bad season as he scored close to historical norms in the 2016/17 season and was on pace to do the same during the first half of the 2017/18 season.

This writer is of the position that Milan Lucic’s play on the ice has been poor, below historical norms, for the entirety of his Oiler career.

Let’s start with the most recent season as it’s universally accepted that it was nothing short of horrid for Lucic.

From the beginning of the 2017/18 season through December 31, Lucic had decent production: he had 6 goals and 18 points in 39 games While this was not close to value for $6M, it was also not cap space debilitating/boat anchor territory. Lucic also had solid metrics during that period: he had positive possession metrics and a 61% goal share and scored at 2.02 P/60 (all numbers 5 on 5).

It’s no secret that Lucic’s somewhat middling offensive production fell off the cliff completely after the turn of the calendar. From January 1 through the rest of the season, Lucic had 1 goal and 6 points in 43 games, Yes, you read that right, 1 goal and 6 points in 43 games. While his possession metrics stayed slightly positive, his goal share dropped to an abysmal 34% (and he had a GF%Rel of -14.95, second worst on the team to Mark Letestu) during those 43 games. He scored at a P/60 rate of 0.63 at 5 on 5. Lucic did have an unsustainably low shooting percentage during that period of 5%, however, there is little doubt his on ice play was a material contributing factor thereto.

For the year, Lucic produced 7 goals and 24 points while playing all 82 games. He had slightly positive possession metrics and a goal share just over 48%. He scored at a P/60 of 1.3 (and primary P/60 at a rate of 0.76) at 5 on 5.

Now, let’s take a bit of a dive into his somewhat successful 2016/17 regular season where he amassed 23 goals and 50 points while playing all 82 games.

What the numbers will show is that Lucic was, once again, very poor at even strength and his decent production was a result of a huge career year on the power play.

Lucic only produced 10 goals and 23 points at 5 on 5 and this included almost 500 minutes playing with Connor McDavid, who, in case you didn’t know, won the Art Ross Trophy that year. In fact, those 23 points at even strength were one less than he scored at even strength in the 2016/17 season and included four fewer goals. His even strength P/60 in 2016/17 was actually worse than it was his more recent horrendous 2017/18 season (1.21 to 1.30).

What these numbers show is that Milan Lucic has struggled materially at 5 on 5 for the entirety of his 2 year Oiler career. This is especially disturbing as Lucic’s offensive success over his career has been at even strength, he has never been a great performer on the power play.

Lucic’s success in 2016/17 was predicated on a power play heater that was entirely out of line with his historical norms. Prior to the 2016/17 season, Lucic’s career high in goals at 5 on 4 was 5, which he accomplished twice as a Bruin, and his career high in 5 on 4 points was 13 which he produced back in 2010/11. In 2016/17, Lucic produced 12 goals and 25 points at 5 on 4, not only career highs but numbers that blew away his previous career highs. He more than doubled his previous career high in goals and essentially doubled his previous career high in points.

His per 60 rates at 5 on 4 mirror the boxcars: he produced G/60 at a rate of 3.39, essentially double his previous career high of 1.71 and he produced P/60 at a rate of 7.06, materially higher than his previous career high of 4.14.

It is absolutely no surprise that Lucic’s production on the power play fell back to within historical norms this past season leading to overall numbers that were very poor and demoralizing for Oiler fans.

His career year on the PP in 2016/17 “saved” what was otherwise a very poor season and, in particular, a poor season at 5 on 5. Milan Lucic has produced low-end results at 5 on 5 for two straight years and, given 5 on 5 production has been the epitome of his game over the years, this trend is very concerning for Oiler fans.

THE EYE TEST

Potentially just as important as the lack of overall scoring, notwithstanding decent production during the first half of last season (and that is an aggressive use of the word “decent”), Lucic simply did not look good on the ice. He was slow, not with respect to his skating necessarily but with respect to his ability to play. He played the game too slow. He wasn’t able to take a pass at the blueline and make a pass in transition. He wasn’t able to make a play in the neutral zone. Lucic looked bad on the ice and the play died with him consistently. While Lucic did lead the league in “scowls/60”, he showed a complete lack of ability to play the game at the speed that is needed to succeed in the league today.

THE HOPE

It is unreasonable for Oiler fans to expect or hope that Lucic can replicate his 2016/17 production on the power play or come even close thereto. History shows that was a complete outlier of a season on the powerplay.

What may be reasonable is for Oiler fans to hope that Milan Lucic can regain at least a portion of his previous form at 5 on 5.

For this writer, this is a hope as opposed to an expectation. With two full years of ineptitude at 5 on 5, playing material minutes in each year with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl (and sometimes both), it is not reasonable to expect the current trend to reverse itself.

On the other hand, what else can Oiler fans do but hope? The hope is that Lucic can find a role either as the 2nd line or 3rd line left winger and at least produce decent results at 5 on 5 and, likely just as important, not be a drag both with and without the puck. Lucic needs to play faster, not skate faster but play faster. He needs to be able to make plays at the blue line and in the neutral zone in transition – quick little passes to help the transition game. Lucic needs to come into the season with confidence and be able to handle the puck and make plays. If Lucic can start to once again make plays and contribute to the transition, the confidence and the production may follow. Maybe, just maybe, he can find his confidence and bring back some of that that swagger he talked about back in July of 2016.

It may look bleak but there is reason to hold out some hope and I will point to Dustin Brown in that regard. Back in 2013, Dustin Brown signed an 8-year extension at a cap hit of $5.875M (which extension did not even kick in until the 2014/15 season) and, for a few years, the contract looked just as bad as Lucic’s contract looks now. Brown scored at a P/60 rate of 1.17 in the 2014/15 season and 1.16 in the 2015/16 season before bouncing back the last two years producing at rates of at 5 on 5 in 1.59 and 1.72. A “Dustin Brown” type bounce back by Milan Lucic would be massive for the organization.

THE PLAN

We know that, in all likelihood, Ryan Nugent Hopkins will start the season as Connor McDavid’s left winger. On the other hand, Leon Draisaitl’ s left winger is not known. Arguments can be made for each of Tobias Rieder, Jujhar Khaira, Pontus Aberg and, yes, Milan Lucic. It’s imperative that the 2nd line left winger be able to produce alongside Leon Draisaitl. We know that Connor McDavid’s line will win the goal share battle, however, for this team to have success, the 2nd line also needs to win the goal share battle and Draisaitl needs help from his wingers.

Although I anticipate many readers to disagree with this position, I think that Milan Lucic should have the inside shot at starting the year as the 2nd line left winger and I think he should be given a real shot to succeed in that role with a good 10-15 games. The net benefit of even partial success by Lucic in that position is too valuable to ignore.

If Milan Lucic can make plays in transition on that 2nd line and bounce back to decent overall production in the realm of 20-25-45, it would do wonders for this team going forward. It would allow a player like Tobias Rieder to play on the 3rd line and solidify a potentially fantastic third line along with Jujhar Khaira and it would allow Khaira himself to continue to develop in the bottom 6. If Milan Lucic could bounce back to be a 2nd line left winger, even a bottom end 2nd line left winger, it could set the team up for some real success this season.

Further, if Lucic is able to produce lower end 2nd line production, it would also help the ability of management to move Lucic and his contract in the off-season. He is currently seen as a complete boat anchor with negative value and the organization and management need Lucic to increase that value this season in order to help structure an impending trade out of Edmonton.

Can Lucic produce on the 2nd line this season? I don’t except he can but I sure do hope he can.